My Struggle With the Paleo Diet

I’ve always been skinny.

For the past 8 years, I’ve ridden the roller-coaster of weight gain and weight loss in a perpetual effort to build muscle and bulk up.  Over the course of that time, I’ve tried every workout imaginable, dozens of different protein and meal replacement shakes, good diets, bad diets, gained 18 pounds in 30 days, lost it all, and confused the hell out of my digestive system and body.

Before we get to where I’m at now, let’s see how it started.

High School – No Clue

After getting cut from the basketball team in my Junior year of high school, I signed up for a gym membership at the local gym.  I spent two years there ‘lifting weights,’ although I never really knew what I was doing.  I took advice from anybody willing to give it out, which unfortunately resulted in me getting pretty crappy tips from some pretty dumb people.  I managed to survive these two years without killing myself, but I don’t think I put on a single pound.

That’s okay though, because I was headed to college soon!  After all, everybody puts on the “freshman fifteen,” right?

College – Freshman Fifteen Fail

Unfortunately, my time in the gym for four years of college was pretty much a monumental waste of time.  Although I learned more about fitness and exercise, I blindly followed the muscle-building routines from muscle mags like an idiot.   I worked out five or six days a week, chugged protein shakes like it was job, and STILL couldn’t put on my weight.

By blindly following those body building magazines and not actually doing any of my own research, I now realize I was doomed before I even started.  At this point, I had all but given up on gaining weight – I just assumed it was impossible for guys like me.

San Diego – It Finally Makes Sense

After graduating from school, I moved out to San Diego with my brother, joined a gym, hired a personal trainer, and finally overhauled my diet.  I started drinking three Muscle Milk collegiate shakes a day, gallons of milk, ate pounds of spaghetti, peanut butter sandwiches, cheeseburgers, and meatball subs.  I drastically scaled back my time in the gym and concentrated on eating all day every day.

After: 

September 28, 2006 - AFTER - 180 lbs.

September 28, 2006 - 180 lbs.

Before: 

August 28, 2006 - Me Before Hitting The gym

August 28, 2006 - 162 lbs.

In 30 days, I gained 18 pounds.

Looking back, I’d guess that it was probably 4 or 5 pounds of muscle, and 15 pounds of fat, water, and glycogen stored in my muscles.

I quickly realized that spending all day in a gym was a waste of time without a calorie surplus to stimulate growth.  More calories eaten than burned = weight gain.  I’m a pretty smart kid too, so I’m baffled as to why it took me like six years to figure this out.

As for what I did in the gym: my workouts centered around big movements (squats, bench presses, incline dumbbell presses, deadlifts, lat pulldowns, and shoulder presses).  I kept my rep range between 8-12, minimized my time between sets, and really pumped my muscles up.  It worked.  If you want to see exactly what I my workout and diet during those thirty days, you can read my full article on how I gained 18 pounds in 30 days.

So What’s the Problem?

I looked better, got stronger, and finally managed to gain weight after years and years of failure. So what’s the problem?  In the past eighteen months, I’ve become more educated on how the body functions with diet and fitness.  I realized that I my plan of action to gain weight wasn’t the healthiest thing in the world.

This past summer, I was turned onto a book by Loren Cordain, The Paleo Diet.  It really resonated with me, and I made the decision that constantly stuffing my face with 4000 calories of processed foods every day was a recipe for disaster.  I finally gave up my Muscle Milk shakes and adopted a more Paleo Lifestyle.  Not surprisingly, this change had a dramatic effect on my weight.

In the five months since switching up my diet, I’ve dropped from 180 lbs. back down to 162 lbs., essentially losing every pound that I fought so hard to keep for two years.

Why This Doesn’t Make Me TOO Mad

Initially I stepped on the scale, saw that my weight had dropped all the way back down, and got extremely frustrated. However, I then looked at a picture of myself from four years ago at 162, and a picture of myself NOW at 162.  I have 8-10 pounds of muscle more on me, and 4-5% less body fat.  I’m still thin, but I’m in much better shape, far stronger, and more muscular compared to a few years back.  Most importantly, I’m not shoveling enormous quantities of processed foods, lab-created meal shakes, and gallons of milk down my throat.

Essentially, I’ve taken my life back, and I don’t have to spend all day every day eating.  Win!

My Plan For the Future

Despite feeling much better about my health these days, I would still like to pack on another 10-15 pounds of muscle.  After all, if I’m going to run a fitness website I feel like I need to look the part.  I know that I could order two tubs of Muscle Milk tomorrow, start crushing meatball subs from Subway, and fly right back up to 185 pounds in a matter of weeks – but that doesn’t really line up anymore with my long term plans of staying healthy, physically fit, and alive.

Instead, I’m going to try and build this muscle while maintaining a Paleo lifestyle.  I think the biggest reason I’d like to try it with a Paleo diet is simply that I want to see if I can do it.  I’m always up for a challenge, and doing it the old way is “been there, done that.”  This is the plan:

Continue lifting heavy in the gym. I just picked up a copy of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, 2nd edition, and I’m excited to dig into really study the nuances of squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, and olympic lifts.  I also ordered a weight-belt that will allow me to do weighted dips and chin ups.  Essentially, I’m going to concentrate on getting stronger and stronger and not worry so much about my weight.  After all, “appearance is a consequence of fitness,” and I figure the muscle will come in time.

Continue with my predominantly Paleo Diet. What I’ve realized over the past five months is that I just can’t find a way to eat enough calories while eating like this.  There are a few things that I’ve been eating to maintain my current weight, and I don’t know if I can get away from them if I want to create a calorie surplus and pack on some muscle:

  • Brown Rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Flaxseed Bread
  • Whey protein

Honestly, I’m okay with this stuff in my diet.  It’d be nice to go without it, but I haven’t had any issues WITH it, so I think finding a good balance of great healthy foods is most important.

Bringing back dairy into the equation? I like milk, I’m not lactose-intolerant in any way, and it would be extremely helpful for me to consume enough calories every day.  If I do start drinking milk again, I’ll make sure it’s from healthy cows whenever possible.  Essentially, I want to find a way to eat enough calories but doing so without packing my system with bad foods.  I have a feeling I’ll be upping my intake of almonds and walnuts – loaded with protein, calories, and good fats.

Get some more damn sleep! I certainly don’t get enough sleep, as I dump all my free time and a lot of my sleep time into this site (not that I’m complaining, I love what I’m doing).  This is something I often preach but never practice -sleep is one of the most important parts of getting in shape, losing weight, and/or building muscle.

I had a super productive Thanksgiving break, and I now have a BUNCH of kick-ass projects in the works that you’ll hear about soon.  Because of these this, I’ve made the decision to post new articles on Nerd Fitness on Mondays and Thursdays for the time being.  In a few months once I get these projects launched I hope to go back to three posts a week, so thanks for your patience guys.

Do we have any Paleo Dieters here?  Has it worked for you?  Any skinny guys that have bulked up on it and want to offer advice?

Let’s hear it!

-Steve

###

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  • Dan

    Be prepared for the weight gain to take a lot longer. I've been doing a modified version of Paleo (the general rule, other than this past weekend) has been eat real food, which includes meat (not always lean, but I tend to err on the side of leaner) and tons of veggies, with fruit and nuts being snacks 2-3 times a day. Add to that 1/2-1 gallon of organic, hormone/antibiotic free whole milk every day and I've put on 6 lbs of muscle and about 1.5-2 lbs of fat in just over 4 weeks. Not a huge gain, but I feel like its happened in a relatively healthy way, rather than just shoving down fast food all day long. This is while I've been doing starting strength too, which is a great program that has really forced me to push damn hard at the gym.

  • NerdFitness

    Thanks for the comment Dan. Where do you get your milk? I know going about the weight and muscle gain this way will definitely take much longer, but I'm more than okay with that.

    I'd rather put on 4 pounds of muscle in a month then 5 pounds along with 10 pounds of fat. Healthier for me, and I'll not have to worry about cutting down afterwards.

    Glad to hear you're doing starting strength too. I've been doing a variation on starting strength for a while now, but when the Starting Strength book shows up on my doorstep in a few days I might jump over to that.

    -NF Steve

  • http://twitter.com/pollen_nation Brandy Kinch

    As a snack: mix together equal amounts of unprocessed coconut oil (solid at room temp) and natural peanut butter. Add chopped pecans, walnuts or whatever nuts you like, and unsweetened shredded coconut. Scoop into little balls, roll them in the coconut and put them in the freezer. They work as a snack, are packed FULL of good fats (depending on your opinion of unprocessed coconut) and are pretty tasty even though they aren't sweetened.

  • Dan

    We have a ton of little bodega's / groceries here in nyc that stock all sorts of health products, including Organic milk. Unfortunately, its not cheap ($3.50-$5.00 a half gallon), but I figure if I'm taking in that much of it, I might as well keep with the idea of better ingredients, real food, just more of it.

    My only advice for starting strength would be to drop your work weight on day 1. Since starting strength is all about adding weight in a linear fashion every workout, if you're starting offwith your current 5RM, you're gonna really struggle with getting that weight to increase every workout (squats and overhead press are the worst for me right now).

  • http://twitter.com/265andfalling Steve

    I WISH I couldn't gain weight and keep it on. I can understand how that would be frustrating though, but you do have some definition to ya, which is always good. About how many calories do you think you are taking in daily on Paleo?

    Off topic, but how was your thanksgiving day 5k?

  • NerdFitness

    Brandy,

    That sounds both crazy and delicious. I may have to give them a shot.

    -NF Steve

  • NerdFitness

    Hey Steve,

    Yeah, I'd like to think that it's as hard for me to gain weight as it is for everybody else to lose weight. What's tough about it is that I would spend so much of my day either preparing food, eating food, or cleaning up afterwards. It was a full time job, and also pretty expensive.

    I'd guess right now I'm probably eating 2000-2500 calories a day. I'm going to start counting calories again over on DailyBurn and see where I'm really at. Then, I'll slowly add calories until I start to put on weight again.

    The thanksgiving 5k was a lot of fun. Both my parents and my brother did it, so we all just walked it together. Much better than running and getting beat by a bunch of 8 year old girls :) We'll see if I decide to do another one next year.

    -NF Steve

  • http://www.designtoimprovelife.com EuroPorter

    Your Monday-Thursday posting schedule makes a lot of sense, Steve — after all, we get all you do free, which is super. You have to take care of yourself first. And I know how you feel about being a hard gainer, there were years of that for me. The crazy thing is that your body chemistry can change drastically as you age (and I don't think it waits for those seven-year marks, either). You may find a dramatic swing in the other direction some day. My own resting matab right now is 1750, so your 2000-2500 calories would blimp me out, and the Paleo (thanks to your recommendation) has been pretty good for me so far, my fat ratio is going down, muscle going up. Is there ANYbody out there who has the perfect metabolism and is actually happy and stable with where he is?

  • Fitzy11

    did paleo for 2 weeks earlier this month. i'm looking to lose that last 10-15 pounds and it went well… i lost about 7 or 8 in the time i did it. the past week, i slipped (for obvious reasons). But I am planning on making it a regular thing. I am getting back on the wagon today, so I hope to continue dropping the weight (need to because I packed on a 6-pack of pounds over the last 4 days). The only thing that I don't like about it is trying to eat things on the go. I know nuts and fruit, but it sucks when I want to just make a quick sandwich for lunch and can't. Any suggestions?

  • http://mooselegs.net m00se

    I love the lego images. :)

    I just started it, but I'm moving over from the ERFYT Diet – which for my type involves LOTS of carbs and legumes, but no wheat. I don't do much dairy, so the only real adjustment is killing the cereal grains and starting to take in red meat and fruits that were previously off-limits. Surprisingly, in the last week, I've dropped 2 kilos without really trying, and all I've done is cut the grains.

    I'm glad I found this one, because I was about to start Dr. Dadamo's Genotype diet, which builds on the ERFYT diet. The athletic version of Paleo makes a lot more sense to me than Genotype.

    On a side note: ERFYT says that blood type A's should do only relaxing, low-impact physical activities like Tai Chi, Yoga, and slow, short bouts of swimming – thus limiting anything overly stressful on the body like running. (Heh. Me? Yeah right!!)

  • NerdFitness

    Thanks Porter,

    Glad to hear that the Paleo diet is working for you. I think the changes can happen pretty drastically right away; I remember dropping like 10 pounds in 2 weeks and I was worried I was going to waste away. Turns out it was just the excess water weight and fat I was storing.

    Moral of the story: skinny, fat, tall, short, whatever – we all want to look better and feel better than we do, no matter where we're at.

    -Steve

  • NerdFitness

    Same problem for me Fitz,

    Finding stuff on the go is difficult other than the bags of almonds and dried fruit. As far as lunch goes, I try to bring mine into the office, and make a bunch ahead of time. I'm sure there are more Paleo-knowledgeable people out there that could chime in. Anyone? Bueler?

    -NF Steve

  • NerdFitness

    Hey m00se,

    Yeah, I keep searching for relevant pictures and the first thing that pops up generally revolves around Legos for some reason!

    Considering your nickname is m00se, I'm going to guess you're not much of a yoga Tai Chi kinda guy. hahaha. Honestly, I don't even know what kind of blood type I am. I should find out!

    -NF Steve

  • http://mooselegs.net m00se

    It's not that I wouldn't consider Yoga, if I had the time, I'd just rather tear things up in the pool and keep it all competitive. :)

  • NerdFitness

    I've only done yoga like twice, and it was to try and meet cute girls back in college. fail.

    I have a buddy here in ATL who is on the larger side of average and he freaking loves Hot Yoga. I'm gonna go with him to a class coming up in the next week or so. Expect a (hopefully) comical article on Steve's adventures with Hot Yoga soon.

    -NF Steve

  • adamkayce

    I'm coming from the other direction – wanting to lose weight rather than gain it – and honestly, the only way it happens is if I go strict Paleo. I'm pretty used to it, though, and it has now become the norm.

  • toddhelmkamp

    Oh man, where can I buy lego cavemen?!

    How do I find out what my resting metabolism is? I'm pretty sure I'm ridiculously high.

  • NerdFitness

    Hey Todd,

    Here's a post I wrote WAY back on your Basal Metabolic Rate – http://www.nerdfitness.com/2009/02/25/leve… There's a link in there that will take you to a BMR calculator.

    -NF Steve

    Also, I have no idea where all of these awesome lego sets are coming from, but I want them.

  • NerdFitness

    Hey Adam,

    Thanks for the comment, do you find that you're able to maintain a strictly paleo diet all the time? or do you just go Paleo when you feel like you need to drop some weight.

    -NF Steve

  • toddhelmkamp

    Sweet, thanks for the info!

  • JFreedom

    Hey it's so easy a caveman can do it, right? :)

    I think the only way I'll stop eating junk food is if I go into hermit mode — my family and in-laws are never-ending sources of confectionery delights. And they feel offended when I say no! Maybe if I grow a beard and carry a spear they'll stop asking…

  • http://twitter.com/qwork1 Katie W

    Definitely looking forward to hearing about that. I've heard some horror stories, but it sounds like a lot of fun, honestly!

  • Endorphin_Dude

    Thanks for the good read, Nerd Fitness Guy. I'm working on taking my fitness to the next level. I've lost about 50 pounds, but there seems to still be fat that are out staying their welcome on my body! It's time for me to add weight training to my routine.

  • pman

    I've been following the Paleo Diet for two months, and I can say with 100% certainty that it's the way to go.

    I'm looking to go a little different direction from you, NF. I've just started getting into triathlon and endurance sports and am looking to continue down that route; my weight training is geared mainly toward functional strength and being lean and cut to go with my tall frame (6'3). I'm not so much looking for a body builder look.

    I'd recommend getting the Paleo Diet for Athletes written by Dr. Cordain and Joe Friel. Granted, Friel's background is in triathlon and endurance sports, but there may be some tips for people like you.

    Remember, the ranges for calorie composition with the Paleo Diet are 19-35% protein, 22-40% carbs, and 28-47% fat. If you want to put on more muscle, then perhaps go all the way to 35% protein and skew the diet more to fat than carbs by eating more nuts, seeds, and good oils (flaxseed, canola, walnut, olive).

  • GH

    Paleo + GOMAD

  • Bryan

    What are you eating for each meal to reach 2500 cals a day? I'm working on my own paleo diet to reach this amount of calories With out milk or any of the don't eats. I found avocados are packed full of cals about 300-400 depending on size. Could you be so kind as to break down your meals for me so i can incorporate the same into my diet? Your site has been very helpful Thanks.

  • bryan

    You should Try the Tabata training method.

  • NerdFitness

    Almonds. lots and lots and lots of almonds. LIke half a bag or more a day.

    -Steve

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  • wellthatsnice

    change that from peanut butter to almond butter. Both peanuts and almonds are high in fat, but almonds have more of those Omega 3 fatty acids that most of our diets lake. Peanut butter is chalk full of omega 6 and is going to push you ratio even more out of wack.

  • Asdriscoll1

    I’m on day 1 of the Paleo Solution Diet from Robb Wolf’s book. I’m doing it to feel healthier as well as drop 15 lbs. I took pictures of myself and measured. I’m looking forward to the weekly results!

  • Asdriscoll1

    I’m on day 1 of the Paleo Solution Diet from Robb Wolf’s book. I’m doing it to feel healthier as well as drop 15 lbs. I took pictures of myself and measured. I’m looking forward to the weekly results!

  • Stephen Trevathan

    Hey I just wanted to say thanks for the really great post. I
    have been very interested with the paleo diet as of late. I played sports all
    the way through school, and it really does seem like this diet is perfect for
    athletes. I even wrote up a post recently on some recent trends in the paleo
    lifestyle, which I thought you might find interesting. You can check it out at:
    http://www.squidoo.com/what-s-next-for-the-paleo-diet

  • Grimm

    If you are still looking for organic whole milk there are a few companies that distribute in California.  Horizon and Organic Valley both carried by most chain supermarkets. Costco also sells it in a 2 gallon box for about $11.

  • Stephen Trevathan

     Hey, I recently found a really great resource list that could be extremely helpful for anyone who is looking to learn more about the paleo diet. These paleo resources were a lot of help, definitely as I was developing a steady meal plan for myself. If you are interested, then you can check it out at: http://www.achieveclinical.com/news/paleo-resources/